Envoy (Part III)
“Come on, it's your turn!” The boy yelled. “Save the day!”
“OK. Here goes!” His playmate responded.
The harvest season was over and the group of five were excited to be out together again, enjoying themselves at their favorite spot by the hillside. The arduous demands of farmwork in the past couple of days had earned them the right to be by themselves, away from duties, houses, barns, markets and adults. Excited and unhindered, they were out here in the open sunshine, losing themselves in the pleasure of play, making every moment count.
Apart from the fact that their families lived in close proximity in the villlage community, the fivesome had struck a deepening friendship ever since they met together at an anniversary celebration. Since then, habitual cohesiveness in work and play had evolved as naturally as would be expected of those in their age bracket.
Though adventuring south into the woods was forbidden for all except organized hunting teams. the stretch of territory between their village community and the forest periphery was sufficient to contain the scope of their boyish mischiefs. Here, they felt unconstrained, free from disruptive adult control.
Showing off their agile and tree climbing skills to each other had been followed by some energetic splashing in a nearby stream and then basking in the open fields had led to teasing and chasing each other down the hillside.
Life was good, they couldn't complain.
After some hide and seek, their recreation switched to a mock combat where they fought each other with poles they had collected from their excursions. Velder, the tall, left-handed leader was grinning himself silly.
"Save the day! Rescue the prisoners!"
His companions followed suit and wielding their poles, took positions to defend themselves against the imaginary onslaught, then regrouped and chased each other in circles, eventually sprawling themselves on the ground in one disorganized, happy mess.
It was the leader who again tried to bring some sanity and order.
"Enough jokers, it's clear you've got the game backwards. We'll start over again and this time, let's do it right!"
"Yes, sir!" One shouted, pushing his companion off him and jumping to his feet.
Amid laughter and jeers, they were about to resume when one of the boys began drawing them all away.
"Quiet!" His insistent voice cut through their mirth like a carving knife. "Listen. We need to leave at once. They are signaling for us back at the village."
This naturally cast an unexpected atmosphere over them, dampening any further fun-making. They turned their attention to the paths that lead back to the cluttered homesteads.
"Wait." It was the Velder, stepping up, his ears on alert. "Who's signaling?"
"Got you!" The warner shouted back as he took off toward the nearby bushes where he went scrambling for cover. As if on cue, everyone else roared in response and went after the deceiver, breathing boyish fire and indignation. They caught up with the culprit just as he attempted to clamber atop a pile of logs. They pulled him down and at once began meting out their "punishment“, ignoring his pleas.
As the others held the hostage, the leader stretched his arm toward him and shouted, "By the powers vested in me as Headman, I condemn you to a soaking in the waters of Ishara!"
The others were baying like a wild audience in a make-believe courtroom.
"Sentenced to the plunge!"
"Drown the outlaw!"
They half-bore, half-dragged the struggling boy with them, chuckling, laughing, yelling all the way toward the stream.
Then it happened.
From a distance, came the sound of a sudden explosion and loud cries which brought the mirth of the fivesome to an abrupt end, stopping them dead in their tracks.
Their playful commotion was quickly replaced by solemn silence.
The deceiver slowly disentangled himself from limp arms.
He pulled himself together and stepped forward.
“What was that?” He whispered apprehensively.
“It definitely came from the village.”
There was a pause.
“Something’s wrong," Velder concluded. "Follow me. We'd better find out.”
The five boys broke into a run back towards the village, through a narrow path that wound from the base of the hill, and along the edge of a nearby field. As they finally cleared the distance and veered around a bend, they stopped and stared ahead of them in shock and disbelief.
The plain before them was ablaze. Entire houses, huts, granaries, barns, sheds, even gardens were on fire. The air was filled with billowing smoke. Women and children ran away screaming while barking dogs and terror-stricken livestock scattered everywhere.
The five boys stood frozen where they were in shock disbelief. Their young brains could not seem to process the unfolding scene.
Through gaps in the smoke, they could see mounted horsemen moving about with torches and swords in their hands. From a distance, on the far left of the village, a column came into view. The men of the village were just returning from their hunting trip. They were met by the unsightly scene and the sound of the commotion.
Instantly the men dropped game and hunting equipment and rushed in after the raiders. Soon, a dramatic confrontation for the survival of the village began. Chaos was now spreading everywhere.
Suddenly, from the trees on their right, came the sound of galloping horses. The boys turned to see three horsemen riding toward them.
“Get those!” One of them commanded as the other two unsheathed their swords and began to rapidly close the gap between themselves and the boys.
“Run!” Velder yelled.
The boys took off on a mad dash back in the direction of the jungle. Upon reaching the first line of trees, they split and disappeared into the thick undergrowth. Velder also moved clear off the beaten path and for an instant glanced back at their pursuers. At that moment, his foot got entangled in trailing weeds. He lost his bearing and his body hit the ground with a thud.
He turned and looked up, panic seizing his consciousness.
The two horsemen were almost on top of him.
“You heard the orders!" One of them shouted to the other, "No prisoners!”
As the rest of his playmates watched in sheer terror from the shelter of the trees, Velder rolled to one side and the horseman’s spear plunged into the earth at the spot he had been only a split second before. As the boy struggled to disentangle himself, the horseman drew back on his reins and quickly dismounted from his horse. He unsheathed his sword and made swift strides toward the helpless boy.
“Velder!” The frightened cry came from a clump of trees beyond.
The man looked up. He turned and signaled his colleague, to the edge of the clearing. “The rest of them are over there!”
Velder's brain was calculating.
This is my only chance.
With one last shove and kick, the boy broke free from the weeds and scrambled to his feet. He ducked as his pursuer turned upon him and the horseman's sword blade cut through overhanging stems, missing the juvenile by inches.
A fistful of earth, flung with all the might the boy could muster caught the man in the face and as he staggered backwards in growling rage, Velder grabbed at the narrow window of time to break off into the thick of the jungle.
The man's left hand cleared his face and his right hand reached for his spear. He now pulled it out of the earth, turned and hurled it at the fleeing boy with the force of a gladiator.
All was quiet at the stream, apart from the gentle rippling of the water upon the rocks. It was a tranquil scene, one that would put anyone into a musing state.
The peaceful setting was suddenly marred by a newcomer, staggering his way toward the water's edge, his clothes torn and soiled. He was perspiring and out of breath, a heaving, pathetic sight of terror, looking this way and that, clutching his bloody shoulder as he went.
Tearing off a piece of cloth from his shirt, he knelt at the stream and quickly soaked it with water. He had just started bathing the gash and cleaning off the clotted blood from his shoulder when a new sound reached his ears.
Incredulous, he stopped.
Someone was calling his name.
Was he dreaming?
Promptly, he stood up.
Holding the cloth against his shoulder, grimacing, he started walking cautiously toward the voice.
There, beyond some tall bulrushes was a rock. Someone sat on top of it.
The boy stopped in his tracks. Fear and pain gave way to recognition and concern.
“Father!” he cried, dashing off to where the man sat.
As soon as he got to him, the man put his arms around the juvenile, but the latter noticed that he did not rise from the rock.
“Good to see that you made it alive, Velder. I was so concerned about you.”
“Father, what is happening? They’ve torched the entire village, they’ve killed the--”
“Velder, listen.” The man’s voice was urgent as he took the boy’s face in his hands. You must find help. Across the ridge to the mountains, there is a hunters’ cave where you will find supplies for your journey. Take whatever you need with you and go at once. Follow the track to the Great Oak and proceed beyond to the land of the gatherers.”
The boy clutched his arm. “Father, you-”
“Son, I cannot come with you. Don’t worry about your sister. I freed her and your mother. But you must go now. There is little time left. They will be scouting around. They will be here soon.”
The man began coughing and wheezing. As he did so, he held his chest, bent over and dropped to the ground by Velder's feet. The juvenile knew the clammy sensation he had felt on his hand was not from his own blood. He stared in disbelief at the body at his feet.
Trembling, he sank to his knees beside the man, tears flowing from his face. He held up his head with both of his hands.
“Go...” the man said, weakly.
“Father, tell me. Who are they? Why did this happen?”
“The secret chambers... the archives... there... you will find the truth.”
From a distance, came the sound of galloping horses.
The man’s eyes widened. “Go!” He cried.
With that, his head dropped away from Velder's hands.
With one last look of mounting hopelessness, the boy raised himself to his feet. He then took off into the trees, clutching his shoulder, crying as he ran.
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